Have you ever seen a ship with bright red sails, sailing along the Neva river? Do you know why this ship makes an appearance every June in St. Petersburg? Alas, all will become clear by the end of this post!
On this day (23rd August) in 1880, Alexander Grin was born in a suburb in Vyatka (today known as Kirov Oblast). Grin - or, using his official surname, Grinevsky - was a famous Russian writer of romantic novels and short stories.
His most famous work is his novel Scarlet Sails (Алые паруса), a magical story of love and perseverance. Grin wrote the tale when he was in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was at that time known) just after the Revolution, and he published it in 1923. Through this work, Grin wanted to show the victory of dreams over reality.
The story opens with a tragedy: a former sailor called Longren becomes widowed after his wife dies of a fever, and he must raise his daughter, Assol, on his own. To support the two of them, he makes small wooden toys and sells them in the local town. While on her way to sell one of her father’s model ships, Assol meets an old man in the forest, who tells her that she will, one day, be whisked away by her prince, who will come to find her on his ship with scarlet sails. Even though everyone else in the village laughs at her for believing in such a prophecy, Assol holds onto this promise and waits for her prince to come. The reader is also introduced to Arthur Grey, a boy of noble origin who runs away from home to become a sea captain. Throughout the course of the book, the reader discovers how the fates of these two characters are intertwined and how destiny brings the two together.
‘...our beginning – Assol's and mine – will forever remain in a crimson glow of sails, created by the depths of a heart that knows what love truly is.’
— Scarlet Sails, Alexander Grin.
‘...наше начало – мое и Ассоль – останется нам навсегда в алом отблеске парусов, созданных глубиной сердца, знающего, что такое любовь.’
— Алые паруса, Александр Грин.
Grin’s stories are set in faraway lands – called ‘Grinlandia’ by fans of Grin – that greatly differ from the reality of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Rather than writing stories centred around revolution, industrialisation, and the struggles of the proletariat, Grin whisks the reader away to magical, unknown lands that are filled with merchants, prophets, taverns, and sea-captains. Even the names that he uses in Scarlet Sails are far-removed from Russian culture: places are called Caperna, Lisse, and Zurbagan, while the characters themselves are called Assol, Grey, Longren, and Thomas Harvey. This detachment from Soviet reality is perhaps why the book did not reach its height of popularity until the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’ of censorship in the 1960s.
Scarlet Sails became even more popular at the end of the 1960s when the Zhdanov Palace of Culture in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) put together a graduation ceremony for all of the school children in the city who were graduating that year (1968). The ceremony featured a ship with scarlet sails, which sailed along to the accompaniment of music by Isaak Dunayevsky and Dmitri Shostakovich. The graduation ceremony took place every year until 1979 and was then revived in 2005.
The ceremony has since grown to become one of the main events in the Petersburg Cultural calendar. Every year in June, students (as well as millions of other spectators) gather around the banks of the Neva to attend the various free events put on by the city and to watch the ship make its way along the Neva river. The ship has come to symbolise the power of hard work, love, and of one’s dreams coming true. What a powerful message for students to take away at the end of the academic year!